2 min read October 2021 — In an interview with Invest:, President of Fisk University Vann Newkirk explained how the university and other HBCUs across the nation are experiencing growth as a result of the pandemic. He also discussed the changes Fisk is making to its campus and programs for the benefit of its students and the changes that higher education as a whole is undergoing when it comes to outreach and virtual education.
How would you characterize the spotlight placed on HBCUs across the nation?
The spotlight is hitting a lot of major historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) and those that are in urban areas. Rural institutions still have difficult times ahead when you look at enrollment. Because of the pandemic, I don’t think many of them will survive.
Urban areas like ours are a different story. We’re seeing the best fundraising year in the institution’s history. Our enrollment has increased during the pandemic and that has a lot to do with our outreach and what we’re selling, which is degrees. This is a venerable institution. We were the first HBCU to be accredited by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools. We’ve capitalized on our name recognition and continue to turn out work-ready graduates. This means that graduates don’t need additional years of training to do a job. They’re ready as soon as they get out. People recognized our product and our institution’s history and the virtues and values we instill in our students.
How do you think universities should rethink enrollment and recruitment growth strategies going forward?
Right now, we’re in a job-seekers market but we have to be prepared for what happens when those jobs get filled. We create programs and majors that prepare students for an influential future and this university has always been a leading pathway toward that. We have the only master’s in social justice, one of our fastest-growing majors. Another program we are looking at is healthcare management. In regard to the pandemic, many of our healthcare professionals have not had the training to deal with situations like this and as we prepare future healthcare professionals, we need to make sure they are ready for similar situations.
What does the mix of delivering in-person and virtual education look like?
Our niche has always been to have small classrooms. We’ve been able to maintain that throughout the pandemic and have always had students on campus. We’ve also looked at having more virtual labs in our programs and I believe the perfect mixture for us is having the tools that students want. For us, having small classes and direct faculty-to-student interactions via virtual meet-and-greets and having people periodically come together for socially distanced meetings have been beneficial. Also, we’ve done 3D labs and 3D history lessons. We have a new program where you can go to our social justice center and walk across the Edmund Pettus Bridge with John Lewis, one of our graduates, and experience the same things he experienced.
Another piece to all of that is making sure that we are integrating employment opportunities for our students into our curriculums. We’re constructing a new building on our campus called the Roland Parrish Career Center, the first since 1983. It’s designed to integrate corporate wants and needs into the curriculum. We’re looking to develop the think tanks of the future so we can build the workplace of tomorrow.
What factors are shaping student-support strategies?
I always say it’s not how you get ahead it’s how you stay ahead. We only have about 1,000 students here but 10% of them are international and come from 20 different destinations. We also have students who come from 44 of the 48 continental U.S. states. We’ve been able to maintain student interaction online through various programs on campus. For instance, we have an esports arena where students can game and be social even from different locations. We’re trying to bring our students together in a social setting where they can practice skill sets that they may not practice otherwise.
How have you updated strategic planning moving forward?
We’ve just started the process of a new strategic plan. We started by looking at where we want to be as a nation. We have our first branch campus, which is about 20 miles away in Clarksville, Tennessee, where we’re educating the military. Thirty to 40% of the military is made up of people of color and they want an HBCU experience when it comes to education. Every semester since we’ve been there, we’ve seen our enrollment double.
We’re also doing a lot more adult education, specifically within the healthcare industry. People think the No. 1 industry in Nashville is music but that’s not true. It’s healthcare.
What is the outlook for the university in the next 16 to 24 months?
I think our outlook is very positive. This year we’re repairing many eyesore buildings so in a few months you’ll see the transition to a new university with a new spirit. As we continue to grow, we want to double the university’s size to an enrollment of 2,500. We’ll also be playing a bigger role when it comes to social justice across the nation.
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